Deanna Kuhn (2005). Education for thinking. Harvard University Press. HUP

annotated - abstracted - interpreted - evaluated

Ben Wilbrink

The introductory chapter is available on

This is a remarkable book, for a number of reasons. For me, it is the most remarkable book on education and educational research I have come across for a very long time. Why is that so? First of all, because of the detailed descriptions of what is going on in (American) classrooms, especially the lack of thoughtful activities of students (and their parents) as well as teachers (and their superiors). I must confess that I was not aware of the enormous gap between actual processes of thinking and arguing by students in school, and what the very same students might accomplish if properly educated for thinking and arguing on the world and its happenings. This has caused a landslide in my thinking about the power of instructional process, call it 'due instructional process.' A host of smaller points follow directly. Let me just mention the Kuhnian claim that learning content in and of itself, stripped of thinking and arguing about that content, is of little value and might even be characterized as wasting the time of students. Of course, in an absolute sense, the claim can not be true, and Deanna is not claiming in this absolute sense. The question is, how to balance course content and the kind of skills Deanna calls thinking and arguing. Because content as such tends to be rapidly forgotten, and these skills will be used a life time, the conlucion must be that content should be subordinate to learning to think and argue. The implication is not that, for example, courses on mathematics should disappear from the curriculum, because an important part of mathematics is thinking and arguing. The problem is, traditional didactics does not sufficiently recognize this, at least not in the way Deanna Kuhn would operationalize mathematical thinking and arguing.

I will use the research by Deanna Kuhn to develop new or at least better methods to design achievement test items. That is because I am in the business of designing those items. Does that leave instructional design out? No, it does not and it should not. If need be, instructional design should adapt to what it takes to questioning students. This is a concept that today is called, for example, 'design based research' (Kuhn, p. 100, 196): "that is, research in which the dual goals of instructional design and theory development are intertwined." Thirty years ago I would have said that it can not be the case that an expert on achievement testing does not look into the content of the course and of the items supposedly testing for mastery of the goals of the course, where the looking is ruled by the results from the cognitive sciences.

One charming aspect of this Kuhnian theory is that the thinking and arguing advocated should be activities that intrinsically motivate students to persevere in them. The quality test, then, simply is whether students in fact are involved, or not. Small problem: Deanna Kuhn does not have or know of examples of long time instruction designed along these lines. The empirical data are not yet in, and will not be for a long time to come. No reason to sit quiet, however. Small steps can be taken. Designing better achievement test items is one such step, inviting instructional designers to follow. Stakeholders themselves, aware of what better designed achievement test items are, might demand their use, another small step on the way to quality education.

At this point it is good to remind the audience that radically changing education along Kuhnian lines is a very difficult thing to do, requires massive resources, lots of time, lots of support (political as well as from students and their parents). This is in sharp contrast with contemporary movements called 'the new learning' or 'compentence-based education,' boasting a philosophy that superficially is remarkably similar to the educational philosophy as articulated in by Deanna Kuhn in this book, while at the same time disregarding the need for scientific evidence, sound scientific theory, and critical evaluation of achievements. For example, in the Netherlands almost everybody wants to introduce 'compentence-based education,' immediately if not yesterday, at the same time cutting down educational expenses. Recently this has led to students openly asking to be taught again instead of being left to themselves; Dutch Parliament, as of January 31 2007, starts a parliamentary investigation into these educational developments.

Chapter 1: Why go to school?

p. 4 "... the objective of helping students learn to use their minds well is a major purpose of this book." What then is it 'to use one's mind well'? And why should this be an important objective? Deanna summarizes (p. 5): indivudals "need to be able, individually and collectively, to seek knowledge to solve problems and to achieve goals; to use reasoned argument to address issues and to make judgments, and to value these activities as the means to maximizing individual and social welfare." This introduces the concepts of thinking and arguing, and the inherent characteristic of these activities to be intrinsically motivating (once taken up, that is). 'To seek knowledge' makes one wonder: whether, how and where knowledge indeed is available in a particular society: Amartya Sen has something to say about the issues involved here, but such is not the line followed through by Deanna in her book. This is not a reproach, it is a reminder to the reader that the notion of knowledge being available for the seeking, might be problematic. See also Bereiter (2002) on the concept of knowledge, especially the folk idea of knowledge 'in' the mind, 'to be sought' or whatever.

p. 7, on the idea of transfer of skill, Kuhn cites Bereiter (2002) Education and mind in the knowledge age. "To accept Bereiter's hard line on the transfer question is to impose the formidable burden of face validity on the educator." Bereiter claims that claims of transfer of skills have not been upheld in empirical research. Following Bereiter in his conclusion, "It means that any educational activity must have face validity in its own right. In other words, its value must be clear and apparent from the activity itself." Kuhn, of course, speaks of face validity to the individual student, not to her teacher or the textbook writer. Kuhn's is a strong stance to take, it belies much that now is happening in educational institutions. I like that, because it is absolutely necessary to be clear on this point.

In separate paragraphs Kuhn discusses some competing notions on what education should be about: 'to instill knowledge' (overrated), to develop skills' (here: the problem of transfer; promising, though), 'for selection' (yes, education is misused for selection; Kuhn does not support the standardized testing craze in the VS, and rightly so), 'for citizenship' (a muddled concept, the important notion of democracy is involved here, however.), 'for thinking' (home to Deanna Kuhn, but we need to be clear on what 'thinking' might be).

p. 12 "we examine what it means to think well, how good thinking develops, and how educators can support this development." ".... development of the cognitive abilities that enable citizens to participate in the ongoing debate that democratic societies require."

Educating for citizenship
p. 11-12: "In yhe end, to include the 'core beliefs and values' of a society as a foundation of its compulsory public school curriculum, we would have to achieve a near-perfect degree of clarity and consensus not only as to what these beliefs and values are, but also as to how best to transmit them to a new generation. Interpreted in this way, education for citizenship is a tall order.
A more flexible, and forgiving, version of education for citizenship is to prepare youths to engage in effective debate of the issues that arise in a democratic society that coexists with a diversity of other societies in a complex world. (...).
To the extent that such an objective is achieved, the need and rationale for more specific and restrictive forms of civic education recede. Students well educated to engae in effective debate are able to construct, or reconstruct, for themselves as the rationales on which democratic societies are founded, without the requirement of absolute uniformity in the conceptual edifices that are constructed.
<...) In the remainder of the book, we examine what it means to think well, how good thinking develops, and how educators can support this development. Education for citizenship, we can conclude, depends not on the inculcation of any particular set of ideas or values but rather the development of the cognitive capabilities that enable citizens to participate in the ongoing debate that democratic societies require." p. 13-14. The paragraph Thinking as a social activity is an eyeopener. It contrasts the traditional vision of thinking as something happening inside an individual's head, to that of "what people do." Kind of: the only thinking that is relevant to anybody is that which is communicated. This is undoubtedly connected to Kuhn's idea that what matters is the quality of thinking in daily life, for students in particular this is life outside school! Well, a good kickoff, isn't it?

Chapter 2: What are we doing here?

p. 16 "... teachers (...) do not often consider what their students think they are learning and why they think it might, or might not, make sense to learn it." This reminds one of the problem in teaching physics to students already knowin g their folk physics. The point of Deanna Kuhn is a much more general one, however. Students already have of lot of convictions and values in place, and might not even consider the school's values worthy of their full attention.

the core

"It seems essential, then, that we begin with students' own ideas about schooling and learning, especially if we think these may be worthy of change." (p. 17)

One way to make this concrete, is to observe what in fact is happening in schools, like an anthropologist would do (Kuhn does not use this picture herself, does not refer to the existing literature either. See, for example, McLaren (19932). Schooling as a ritual performance. London: Routledge.; Martyn Hammersley (1990). Classroom ethnography. Open University Press.). Deanna Kuhn shares with us her observations in grade eight in two very different schools, called by her the struggling school and the (alledgedly) best practice school.

p. 20-21: "The fundamental problem seemed to me that students at the struggling school had not bought in to the school anterprise, They were present because they had been told they had to be, and they were resigned, for the time being, to this constraint on their activities and lives. By all appearances, the students did not worry themselves with trying to find out why adults were making this demand, even though the demand did not make a lot of sense to them. They either never had or had lost their trust in teachers as adlults who had their interests at heart and could be counted on not to waste their time with pointless actvities. Within this setting, students endeavored to make the best of their situation and to follow their own agenda's within its constraints."

The picture roughly corresponds to that of the situation in Dutch VMBO-schools, the observations of Deanna Kuhn are not typical of particular American schools only.

p. 18: "My dominating impression of the struggling school was its noise level."

p. 20: "Often, what students at the struggling school were being asked to do was beyond them and they had little alternative but to appear to engae in the task,"

The picture of the best practice school reminds me somewhat of my own schooldays at the Gymnasium, except that then and there did not exist the competitive culture that Deanna Kuhn finds here dominating the school cuture.

p. 21 "The dominating characteristic was not noise, as in the struggling school, but time, which was treated as a precious commodity not to be wasted."

p. 22: "The focus on assessment of performance was intense. Each piece of work was reviewed, and usually commented on, by the teacher. Students were aware how the various forms of assessment contributed to their final grade and of their own standing in the class and what they had to do to maintain or improve it." This strongly reminds one of the 19th century assessment tradition in secondary education, every student keeping a record of all the points gathered by all students in the class. [See my 1997 'Assessment'].

p. 22-23: "As hey engaged industriously in their best-practice classrooms, and later at their desks at home at might, what sense did these young students have of 'why would I want or need to know this?' The answer is a clear one, certainly no secret to the students, parents, or teachers and principals involved in the effeort, and that answer is 'to get into a top college.'

p. 23: "Students, parents, and teachers were all on the same team, working towards the same goals, despite intense competition among students to reach and stay near the front of the pack."

p. 24: "For the advantaged students at these schools, then, the challenge of finding any genuine meaning in educational pursuits is postponed to the extended adolescence that the college and even postcollege years have become."

p. 25: "Schooling for more schooling's sake is, in fact, problematic as an answer to the question 'why go to school?' It provides an untimately unsatisfactory answer to the question of how school connects to life."

Kuhn's thinking and argumentation mission intends to remedy this sorry state of affairs as much as possible given the strong sentiments in contemporary society about competition and all the rest of it (read the forceful statement on 'the challenge of meritocracy' p. 28-30). Engage students in activities they recognize as worth doing.

Kuhn then introduces the reader to research on personal epistemology, especially the developmental stages in it: realist, absolutist, multiplist and evaluativist (Kuhn and Weinstock (2002). questia). This theory is the fundamental framework behind Kuhn's education-for-thinking mission. Google 'personal epistemology' to find the latest research on it. Kuhn, Cheney and Weinstock (2000) developed an instrument to assess these levels of epistemological understanding: realist, absolutist, multiplist or evaluatist.

Chapter 3:

Chapter 4: The skills of inquiry

Densely written, kind of summary of a book in itself.

Learning to learn. What do we know about (school) learning? Not much yet. Reference: Bransford et a (1999) html. Microgenetic methods used, among others, by Kuhn 1995 and Siegler 2006.

p. 60: Children's understandings of the world are like theories. Kuhn therefore calls them theories. This is a key-concept in the book. Implicit in this move is that conceptual change is a shift in theory, therefore changes and even paradigm shifts in scientific theories are a kind of model to what might happen or in fact is happening in learning in school, at least 'if we regard learning as change in understanding.' That's exactly the point. What is more: inquiry learning is the endeavor of getting control over the 'theory-evidence coordination' that results in these conceptual changes. One ought to have a scheme of this coordination: it involves discerning evidence and theory, and being aware of the grounds for one's claims about what is the case: is it one's theory, the facts as presented, or inferences from one's theory as well as the facts one is presented with?

"The world consists of complex constellations of multiple forces that act on one another as causes and effects." (p. 61)

At the most general level, children's theories may be conceived to be mental models of causality. A mental model, of course, need not be true to the facts available to the child. Scientific theories, strictly taken, are not true to the facts of the world either. Some models, however, are better than others.

An important set of skills, then, concerns our ways of getting informed on the external world, and of constructing etcetera our mental models on the basis of this information.

p. 62. Kuhn here exploits a particular example: on the possible causes of good performance in school, to explain the way one handles one's own mental models. I would like to replace the example with one of my own, on the possible ways that selective admissions might be profitable or harmful to stakeholders involved. I will not do so here; the interested reader might browse my page on US admissions policies in higher education.

A useful difference is that between additive and interactive models of causation, the interactive being the more complex ones, and therefore much more difficult to master. Why is this important? Most effects in this world have multiple causes. What is worse: people do have already a difficult time getting multiple additive causes straight, and are only vaguely, if at all, aware of the possible interactivity causes.
Let me give a physical example: the total weight of two volumes of water, or whatever, is the sum of their separate weights, while their total temperature is not the sum of their separate temperatures. Kuhn's example is the total effect of two pollutants: it might be additive, but that is not likely to be the case: it might be less, or even more.

Research, or our own daily experience, teaches us that people tend to err in indicating only one cause where in fact there is more than one cause (underattribution, technically called discounting the other causes), or calling everything a cause that is somehow related to or in the vicinity of the supposed effect (overattribution). To err in causal attribution is the rule, rather than the exception. The research on this point:

Kuhn uses the term causal beliefs. People typically do not develop their causal convictions at the moment they are asked about them: "People form their causal beliefs based at least in part on an accumulation of everyday observations." (p. 62). The citation looks like a rather harmless observation by Deanna Kuhn. It isn't. This is one of the many places in the book where the author rather off-way refers to important factual or philosophical points. The point is, students do have causal beliefs irrespective of what they might have learned in school, or before their teacher tells them what the causal relations in fact are. How, then, to deal with these causal beliefs of the students? Kuhn tells us how.


Titles mentioned by Kuhn and in the above annotations, not necessarily seen by me.

John R. Anderson, James G. Greeno, Lynne M. Reder and Herbert A. Simon (2000). Perspectives on learning, thinking, and activity. Educational Researcher, 29, 11-13. pdf concept

Carl Bereiter (2002). Education and mind in the knowledge age. Erlbaum. questia

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (Eds) (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning html

Susan A. Gelman and Charles W. Kalish (2006). Conceptual development. In Kuhn and Siegel, p. 687-733.

D. Keating (2004). Cognitive and brain development. In R. Lerner and L. Steinberg Handbook of adolescent psychology. Wiley.

R. Siegler (2006). Microgenetic studies of learning. In Kuhn and Siegel, p. 464-510.

Stuart S. Yeh (2002). Tests Worth Teaching To: Constructing State-Mandated Tests That Emphasize Critical Thinking Educational Researcher, 30, # 9, 1217.

Other publications by Deanna Kuhn

Publications by Deanna Kuhn, downloadable from the Thinking Project website

Deanna Kuhn and Maria Pease (2008). What needs to develop in the development of inquiry skills? Cognition and instruction, 26, 512-559. abstract

Deanna Kuhn (2006). Do cognitive changes accompany developments in the adolescent brain? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1 #1, 59-67. pdf

Deanna Kuhn (2003). Understanding and Valuing Knowing as Developmental Goals. Liberal Education, 89.questia

Deanna Kuhn (1995). Microgenetic study of change: What has it told us? Psychological Science, 6, 133-139.

Deanna Kuhn and Michael Weinstock (2002). What Is Epistemological Thinking and Why Does It Matter? In Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich (2002). Personal epistemology: The psychology of belief about knowledge and knowing. Erlbaum. questia

D. Kuhn, R. Cheney and M. Weinstock (2000). The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive Development, 15, 309-328.

D. Kuhn and R. Siegler (Eds) (2006). Handbook of child psychology. Volume 2: Cognition, perception, and language. 6th edition. Wiley. contents Online available: Nlson, Thomas and De Haan: Chapter 1. Neural bases of cognitive development. pdf

Publications on Deanna Kuhn's work

January 22, 2009 \ contact ben at at at    

  Valid HTML 4.01!